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July/August 2006Vol. 7, No. 6Frequently Encountered Families

In most child welfare systems, there is a small percentage of families who require a disproportionate amount of caseworker time and agency resources. These "frequently encountered" (FE) families were the subject of a research study aimed at identifying characteristics of these families, as well as ways to strengthen the families and lessen their involvement with the child welfare system.

The study drew on data from two samples of families who were the subject of accepted reports by child welfare agencies. In a Minnesota sample of 797 reported families, 19 percent were FE (three or more reports in 27 months). Among 33,395 reported Missouri families, 21 percent were considered FE families (five or more reports in 5 years). Expenditures for these FE families were disproportionate. In Missouri, even though the FE families constituted only one-fifth of the reported families, half of the total CPS expenditures—more than $91 million—was spent on them over 5 years.

In evaluating the FE families in these two samples, three overriding characteristics were identified:

  • Extremely low income
  • Emotional fragility
  • Lack of social support

Additional characteristics often found in these families included domestic violence, mental illness or disabilities in a parent or child, and untreated substance abuse. In tracking these families over time, the author found that reports of physical abuse tended to decrease, while reports of neglect tended to increase. Specifically, neglect related to unmet basic needs (e.g., lack of food, unsanitary living conditions) and medical neglect (e.g., untreated diseases or injury, medications not administered) tended to increase over time for these families.

The complexity of the problems of FE families sometimes makes it difficult to identify and provide appropriate and sufficient services. In addition, changes in family structure or income over time may help or hinder the family's ability to cope. These situations demand that child welfare agencies identify these families early and provide preventive services. Specific recommendations include:

  • Target families early.
  • Shift agency focus to prevention.
  • Use child maltreatment reports to offer assistance rather than adversarial investigation.
  • Engage families to participate voluntarily.
  • Focus on root causes.
  • Become more available to FE families to break the cycle.
  • Involve the community.

The full report, Families Frequently Encountered by Child Protection Services: A Report on Chronic Child Abuse and Neglect, by L. A. Loman, was produced by the Institute of Applied Research and is available on its website: (PDF - 404 KB)